E. J. Bellocq was born in 1873. He worked as a photographer. He died in 1949 at the age of 76 years old.
First of all, the pictures are unforgettable – photography’s ultimate standard of value. And it’s not hard to see why the trove of glass negatives by a hitherto unknown photographer working in New Orleans in the early years of this century became one of the most admired recoveries in photography’s widening, ever incomplete history. Eighty-nine glass plates in varying states of corrosion, shatter, and defacement was the treasure that Lee Friedlander came across in New Orleans in the late 1950s and eventually purchased. When, in 1970, a selection of the ingeniously developed, superb prints Friedlander had made was published by the Museum of Modern Art, the book became, deservedly, an instant classic. So much about these pictures affirms current taste: the low-life material; the near mythic provenance (Storyville); the informal, anti-art look, which accords with the virtual anonymity of the photographer and the real anonymity of his sitters; their status as objets trouves, and a gift from the past. Add to this what is decidedly unfashionable about the pictures: the plausibility and friendliness of their version of the photographer’s troubling, highly conventional subject. And because the subject is so conventional, the photographer’s relaxed way of looking seems that much more distinctive. If there had once been more than eighty-nine glass negatives and one day a few others turned up anywhere in the world, no one would fail to recognize a Bellocq.
The year is 1912, but we would not be surprised to be told that the pictures were taken in 1901, when Theodore Dreiser began writing Jennie Gerhardt, or in 1899, when Kate Chopin published The Awakening, or in 1889, the year Dreiser set the start of his first novel, Sister Carrie – the ballooning clothes and plump bodies could be dated anywhere from 1880 to the beginning of World War I. The charges of indecency that greeted Chopin’s only novel and Dreiser’s first were so unrelenting that Chopin retreated from literature and Dreiser faltered. (Anticipating more such attacks, Dreiser, after beginning his great second novel in 1901, put it aside for a decade.) Bellocq’s photographs belong to this same world of anti-formulaic, anti-salacious sympathy for “fallen” women, though in his case we can only speculate about the origin of that sympathy. For we know nothing about the author of these pictures except what some old cronies of Bellocq told Friedlander: that he had no other interests except photography; that “he always behaved polite” (this from one of his Storyville sitters); that he spoke with a “terrific” French accent; and that he was – shades of Toulouse-Lautrec – hydrocephalic and dwarf-like. Lest the association induce us to imagine Bellocq as a belle époque erotomane who had transplanted himself to the humid franco-creole American city to continue his voyeuristic haunting of bordellos, it might be mentioned that Bellocq also frequented the opium dens of New Orleans’s Chinatown with his camera. The Chinatown series, alas, has never been recovered.